I was there early on Thanksgiving Day using the Google-powered internet and working quietly on a project that I’m trying to finish before year’s end. Over the 3 hours I was there (from about 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., more or less), I saw Asian kids, black kids, Mexican kids, white kids, and even a table of camouflage-wearing middle-aged white people, women and men, who spoke very loudly of their approval of Donald Trump and the new direction he’s taking our country.
Taking the long way back to Orange, which lies on the Louisiana border, I made a detour to visit the Sons of the Confederate Veterans “Memorial of the Wind,” which is located on Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. where it intersects Interstate 10 (in the photo above).
When you exit the eastbound freeway, before you travel beneath the underpass to get to the north side of the road where the memorial is located, you see the billboard below. It “welcomes” visitors to Orange, home of the West Orange Stark High School football team. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. is one of the city’s main thoroughfares and so it’s only natural that the exit is well-trafficked.
The land where the memorial stands is owned by a man named Granvel Block, the “Texas division commander” of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who, according to his Facebook, is from West Orange where my in-laws live and where Tracie grew up less than a block from the high school.
Jack Smith, the Orange city attorney, has called the site “repugnant” but in a 2013 public hearing where the memorial was discussed by city officials, he explained that “preventing the property owner from constructing the flagpole and flying the flag could be a violation of the man’s right to freedom of expression.”
The last time I visited the site two years ago, Block had not yet erected the neo-classical atrium nor any flags. But when I visited last Thursday, a confederate flag was flying from atop a pole on the south side of the structure.
My hands trembled as I snapped some photos using my phone. Until Donald Trump became our nation’s president, the memorial seemed like an ugly and despicable, however anachronistic, expression of a dying ideology. Today, with the rise of the alt-right (who now has our president’s ear, even though he claims otherwise), the site of a confederate flag hoisted within view of Interstate 10 strikes cold fear in my heart.
I don’t know Block nor do I know his politics or ideological leanings. But I do know that people who champion the confederate flag often share the alt-right’s embrace of anti-semitism.
When our daughters were born, I thought to myself: some day, as the children of a Jew, they will encounter anti-semitism over the course of their lives, most likely as adults and most likely in the form of offensive but relatively harmless profiling. Today, with the degradation of civic discourse (thanks in no small part to our new president) and the mainstream embrace of the white nationalist movement, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me: when will a classmate utter the first slur within earshot? when will a classmate or a parent of a classmate make a comment like I Jewed him down in front of my kids? I grew up in a town in Southern California, La Jolla, where there is a documented history of institutionalized anti-semitism. I remember well the locker room taunts of my junior high school years (35 years ago). But I never imagined that my children, in 2016, would be exposed to such hate-filled ideology. But now it seems, sadly, more likely than not.
In September of this year, in the run-up to a West Orange Stark football game, a student from the visiting team posted a racially charged meme and note on Twitter in reference to one of the host team’s black players. There was outrage, there was an official apology, and the student was punished.
Now with Donald Trump president, alt-right enabler and Breitbart executive Stephen Bannon his top advisor, and Jeff Sessions poised to become attorney general (despite a career of combatting civil rights and a legacy of racist statements), we’ll have to see what happens the next time a teenager posts something like that on social media. Said student surely didn’t learn such hateful speech in a vacuum. It was a reflection — an echo, a resonance — of something he might of heard her/his parents say. Or something he heard in her/his community.
Today, in Trump America, the confederate flag is displayed prominently and proudly at the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and Interstate 10 at the gateway to Texas (Orange is the first town in Texas on westbound I-10). Before the Trump era, the sight made me cringe with disgust. Today, it makes me reel in anguish: this is the America we were; is it the America we are becoming again?